Why Math Doesn't Reveal Hidden Predictions in the Bible
The controversy began with a scientific paper.
Israeli mathematician Eliyahu Rips, together with Yoav Rosenberg and Doron Witztum, pored through the Hebrew Book of Genesis in search of hidden codes, and they apparently found some... The names of prominent Jewish Rabbis and the dates they were active were concealed within the text, pretty incredible considering that they existed hundreds of years after the Torah was written! Rips and his colleagues extracted these names and dates using the Equidistant Letter Sequence (ELS) method. Basically, they entered all of the letters of the Torah into a computer and searched for meaningful words and numbers that arose when starting at one letter and skipping other letters at regular intervals, either forwards or backwards. For example, the sentence, "He was a bad instructor" can be seen to contain the hidden word "habit" if you start at H and skip every couple letters.
Rips and his co-authors got their work published in the reputable peer-reviewed journal Statistical Science in 1994. The editors of the journal published the paper as a "challenging puzzle" to readers, not as verified account of divine religious predictions. Nevertheless, a great many people took it as the latter.
One of those people was journalist Michael Drosnin, who used the ELS method to find numerous accounts of the Bible apparently predicting all sorts of future events in concealed "code". His book, The Bible Code, became a bestseller. In it, he wrote "no human could have encoded the Bible in this way." He added, "I do not know if it is God," but insisted that some sort of mysterious intelligence was behind it.
What these two works truly reveal is the immense power of probability. The Bible contains 304,805 Hebrew letters, so using the ELS method can produce many millions of possibilities for seemingly relevant phrases to emerge and amaze. Thus, it is a near statistical certainty that one will find concealed "codes" in large texts if one looks hard enough for them.
"Generally what the code makers do is they look at a lots of possibilities and when they have a hit they wave their hand and say ‘look at me I got a hit' and there are so many possibilities here that you can find things anywhere," Caltech Math Professor Barry Simon said when interviewed about the phenomenon.
Facing criticism over his book, Drosnin challenged, "When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I'll believe them." Using the ELS method, the mathematician Brendan McKay did just that, uncovering assassination predictions for Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and Leon Trostky in the 1851 literary classic.
"Maybe Melville was divinely inspired," Simon joked.
In 1999, McKay published a rebuttal to Rips' original paper. He and his co-authors found that the impressive statistical significance in Rips' paper reflected entirely upon "choices made in designing their experiment and collecting the data for it." With other sets of rabbis and religious predictions, they found that Leo Tolstoy's epic War and Peace could be just as easily found to contain 'divine predictions'.